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Border crossing customs plaza priorities to be subject of congressional hearing

by Candice Miller on July 11, 2014

2:40 PM, July 11, 2014   |
By Todd Spangler

Detroit Free Press Washington Staf

WASHINGTON — A metro Detroit congresswoman will hold a hearing next week that could shed light on Michigan’s chances of getting federal funding anytime soon for a pair of customs plazas — a key hurdle to moving forward on a new international bridge between the U.S. and Canada.

Supporters of the New International Trade Crossing, or NITC, have been pressuring federal officials to commit the $250 million needed for a new customs plaza in Detroit, which is one of the last remaining components needed to finalize the funding for the span. Canada’s picking up the rest.

But in order for that to happen, the new plaza would have to leapfrog other projects around the country — including a plaza expansion in Port Huron, where officials have been waiting for additional funding for more than a decade.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, represents Port Huron, and, acutely aware of the desire to fund projects there and in Detroit, has called the hearing next Wednesday as chairwoman of the House Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee.

She’s calling it, “Port of Entry Infrastructure: How Does the Federal Government Prioritize Investments?” and has asked officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration — which builds and manages large customs facilities — to testify.

“We will examine how, in an era of very limited resources, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the General Services Administration prioritize critical infrastructure projects between our ports of entry to ensure we can maximize commerce without sacrificing security,” she said.

The Free Press has reported extensively on the funding issue, which could end up playing a key role in the timing and financing for the new international bridge — a project supporters say could put thousands of people to work.

President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for the General Services Administration this year included $420 million for three border stations — two along the Mexican border in California and a third long-standing project at Alexandria Bay in New York — but did not include funding for Detroit or Port Huron. In three of the last four years, there was no funding for GSA customs plazas.

The Homeland Security Department has refused to disclose its priority list to the Free Press, so it is not known where, or if, the Detroit and Port Huron projects stand. However, in a May visit to Michigan, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his agency was “actively looking” for ways to fund a new customs plaza, though he made it sound as though it could be done during or even after construction of the bridge.

Last week, Detroit’s automakers and leaders with the UAW and Michigan AFL-CIO asked Obama to intervene in securing federal funding for a customs plaza for the proposed new bridge in Detroit, which has already gotten the necessary federal permits and survived legal attempts by the owners of the privately owned Ambassador Bridge to stop it.

Although the news release announcing next week’s hearing didn’t specifically address the Michigan plazas, Miller told the Free Press they were very much on her mind going into the hearing. She has been adamant that the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron should get funding along with the Detroit project — and many Michigan officials appear to be in agreement.

U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, has even sponsored legislation that would steer funding for plazas to the busiest ports of entry, including those in Detroit and Port Huron.

“I am especially interested in critical infrastructure investments to our northern tier ports of entry,” Miller told the Free Press. “These ports, including the Blue Water Bridge — the second busiest — account for over $700 billion annually in U.S.-Canadian trade.”

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